updated 9/18/2006 12:32:01 PM ET 2006-09-18T16:32:01

Guests: John Murtha, Ed Gillespie, Eugene Robinson, A.B. Stoddard, Lynn Sweet

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Who will win the battle over treatment of terrorists, the regiment of General Colin Powell, John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins, or the commander in chief?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews.  This week began with the president‘s two day tour commemorating 9/11.  Democrats were quick to slam the president for playing politics after he had promised not to.  Just days later, more violence in Iraq, almost 100 dead in just a 24 hour period.  It was a stark reminder of the daily violence, and dozens of Americans killed in that country every month now.

Today, under fire from members of his own party including John McCain, the president took the airwaves for a press conference demanding harsh tactics for interrogating terror suspects.  He vowed to reject any program that does not define the rules for treating terrorists.  Will he pay a price for the Republican divide?  Can he succeed in changing the subject from the hell in Iraq to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?  And do the Democrats have what it takes to hold his feet to the fire? 

NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory joins us now from the North Lawn of the White House.  Give us an update.  What is this fight about between the president and his leading men from the Capitol, senators with great military backgrounds like McCain, Colin Powell the former secretary of state, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and of course John Warner, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee?  Why are they all lined up against the president on the Geneva Conventions? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  The president wants Congress to write a law that says that it is OK for the CIA to have secret prisons and use harsh interrogations techniques against prisoners to get what the president said is high-value intelligence, actionable intelligence, that can save American lives. 

But in the course of getting that law, the administration wants to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions.  Those govern the treatment of prisoners that are held by various countries or entities. 

What Warner, and McCain, and Graham and others want is roughly the same thing, but they say, hey, wait a second, we can do all of that, but let‘s not tinker with the Geneva Conventions, because that is a treaty that we have abided by for 50-plus years than, the rest of the world abides by that, and if you take this step of reinterpreting what you think the Geneva Convention should be about, then our adversaries could do the same thing. 

Countries could turn the tables on us and reinterpret the Geneva Conventions the way they see fit, and end up torturing U.S. military personnel overseas who could be captured say in Iran, say in North Korean, special operations folks or CIA paramilitary people.  So that‘s really what the fight is about, Chris, and this is now a huge debate about national security within the Republican Party. 

MATTHEWS:  Where is the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed right now, the mastermind of 9/11?  Where is he?

GREGORY:  He is at Guantanamo Bay. 

MATTHEWS:  What happens when he eventually gets out?  Won‘t he be able to tell this whole story of whatever treatment was done to him to the world? 

GREGORY:  Well, the administration is counting on putting him on trial and presumably putting him to death at some point if he‘s convicted, so I don‘t think he would be able to say anything. 

MATTHEWS:  So do they assume that will be the case with all the top bad guys, that they will be able to executed them before they can describe the torture that apparently—or the tough treatment?  The president calls it—what‘s he called it?  Rough treatment?  He has a word for it. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  I mean, he says these are alternative methods.  He says that he has never authorized torture.  It is quite clear that CIA officers are using techniques that go beyond the “Army Field Manual.” 

Again, the administration insists it‘s completely legal, but they want more clarity than that.  They want to make sure that no CIA officer or interrogator can be prosecuted here in the U.S. or overseas for the interrogation methods that they are using. 

And Republicans on the Hill, including Warner, Graham and McCain, they want to provide that kind of protection, but they think they can do that without actually redefining or reinterpreting the Geneva Convention. 

So it is a highly technical point, but it is so, so important because Senator McCain says, look, this is what we are about as a country.  This is about the signal that we send to the rest of the world in terms of the treatment of prisoners, and that‘s what matters. 

On the other side you have got the president saying, look, if you don‘t give me what I am looking for here, the CIA will shut down the program.  And the reality is, that if that happens, we won‘t get the kind of intelligence that we were able to get because the likes of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, of Abu Zubaydah, they know how to deal with our normal interrogation techniques, and we won‘t get what we‘re looking for. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, a fact check here.  Do we know we are getting active, useful intelligence from these bad guys we‘ve picked up?  Do you know that they are actually giving them stuff we can use to prevent another attack, or is this just going over the stuff they knew the two or three years ago when they were picked up? 

GREGORY:  I think it is quite clear that we have gotten valuable intelligence from what the White House describes as some of the high-value prisoners.  There may be debate within the intelligence community about whether these harsh interrogation techniques actually led to that.  I think there is considerable debate, as we well know, over whether harsh interrogation techniques, what some might consider to be torture, actually works.  That‘s a very important debate.

The president will not say what he considers to be torture or what he has authorized by way of interrogation techniques.  He will only say it is not torture, and that everything they have done is lawful.  But that is an important debate. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  Have a nice weekend. 

GREGORY:  You too.

MATTHEWS:  David Gregory at the White House. 

U.S. Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a combat veteran of Vietnam has been one of the most outspoken critics of President Bush‘s war policy in Iraq, and the Republicans don‘t like it. 

Congressman, let me ask you about this fight going on in the Senate right now between the president, the commander in chief, and three or four top military Republicans, people like John Warner, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, all with military backgrounds, who are disputing the president‘s plan for interrogating prisoners.  Where do you stand on that fight? 

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  Well, I dispute the plan also.  As a matter of fact, I led the fight in the House when we had our defense bill up.  I had a—directions for the conference that we would take the same position as the Senate took, and we passed it by a 2-1 majority. 

And I made very clear that it would hurt our military to pass that kind of legislation because it would violate the Geneva Convention.  And as Colin Powell says, that is the worst thing that could happen.  We can‘t lower our standards to the standards of the terrorists, and that is exactly what they would be doing under these circumstances.  So it actually threatens and hurts our troops if you do what the president wants to do. 

MATTHEWS:  The president says that our people who are interrogating these terrorist suspects cannot be guided by loose language like you can‘t use outrage or show outrage against the dignity of a prisoner.  The language is too broad, to lenient for these purposes.  Do you accept that? 

MURTHA:  No, I don‘t accept that at all, Chris.  As a matter of fact, I talked to Secretary Mora (ph) when he was disputing what the Navy was doing at Guantanamo Bay.  He felt very strongly, and I used the word torture.  He said no, no.  Even inhumane treatment is covered by the Geneva Convention, and it should not be allowed.

So I agree with Senator Warner, McCain and Lindsey Graham.  I agree with them completely that we have to make it clear that—the soldiers themselves come to see me and tell me, the commanders.  This is a fight between the military and the civilians. 

These guys never served a day in their life, and they‘re telling us what would hurt the military.  The military says it hurts them if you pass these kind of regulations, which lower our standards to the standards of the terrorists. 

MATTHEWS:  Suppose you had a terrorist in custody and you were in charge, Congressman, and that terrorist you figured knew something about an upcoming terrorist attack on the United States.  What would be your standard of treatment of that guy, trying to get the info out of him? 

MURTHA:  Well, I certainly wouldn‘t go to torture, and I certainly—

I don‘t agree with the fact that they have gotten the kind of information they say they have gotten from these people.  And I have heard all the briefings.  I have heard all the kind of hypothetical statements that they have made about this.  I think you have to be very careful.  It hurts us a lot more in the long run when you lower our standards to the standards of the terrorists. 

MATTHEWS:  You know this guy Muqtada al-Sadr—he is one of the militia leaders over in Iraq—he said that if we get—if the Americans get out, there will be a very bloody year at they sort it out over there between the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurd, but at the end of that very bloody year, it will be better off out there than it is now. 

Do you accept the fact—because you want to redeploy our troops back over the horizon and let them sort of settle their situation over there.  Are you afraid it will be a very long, bloody year as Muqtada al-Sadr says it will be? 

MURTHA:  Well, Chris, when the British left India in 1946 or 1947, it was a bloody year between the Hindus and the Muslims.  But that is going to happen in the next year.  They were there 75 years.  It is going to happen whether we leave now or leave a year from now. 

Our troops are caught in a civil war, and the only way we are going to get this thing solved is let them solve it themselves.  Sixty percent unemployment, the inflation rate is 70 percent.  They make $200 a month for their salary.  Electricity—all those things—are below prewar level.  There is no way we can solve it. 

We have to redeploy as quickly as responsible and let the Iraqis settle this themselves.  Whether we leave a year from now or we leave next week, it is going to be the same circumstances. 

MATTHEWS:  Rich Engel, who is a pretty courageous young reporter—he has been over there for NBC for a long time now.  When I raised that proposal with him, your proposal, basically, to redeploy away from the cities, let them settle out the civil aspects of this, we‘re there for strategic reasons only to keep the outside from getting involved there, he said if our troops pull back to the barracks with all the equipment we have, our soldiers, and all the food and the money they make, soldiers well equipped to fight, and we let the Iraqi government and its army do the fighting, they will look back at us and say, we‘re not going to fight anymore if the Americans don‘t fight.  He says they won‘t let us sit back and watch them fight. 

MURTHA:  Well, right now the Americans lead the fighting, and that is part of the problem.  We have to put the responsibility on this elected government.  They had a democratically elected government, they have the responsibility to take over themselves.  And it‘s going to be very difficult. 

But it was the bloodiest month that we‘ve had in July of this past year, and 130,000 troops have been there for three and a half years.  It‘s gotten worse every single day.  We had 400 incidents a week a year ago, today we have 800 incidents.  There is no question in my mind it is not getting better.  And the only answer is to let them handle it themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you watch much television, Congressman?  Do you monitor the coverage by the major networks, the cable and the broadcast news?  Do you think we‘re still—I am open to critique here as part of this—do you think we are not giving enough attention to the war, the bloodiness over there, it‘s too much focus here on the issues back here in America?

MURTHA:  Yes, I think they‘ve been diverted away from the war.  I think sometimes they have a tendency—they cover the president trying to scare the American people.  You know what Roosevelt said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. 

We have to be very careful about some of the unrealistic statements they make about the progress that is being made.  We have diverted ourselves away from the war on terrorism and the news media has diverted away from it also. 

The war on terrorism, we‘re united, the Democrats and Republicans are united, and that is in Afghanistan.  And there was never any reason to go into Iraq.  This is the frustrating thing about the whole thing. 

And they keep going back to Iraq where we are spending $8 billion a month, $11 million an hour.  And the closest to us, we spend $500 billion a year on defense, the closest to that is China, they spend $80 billion, and the closest to that is somebody who spends $45 billion a year.  So we are spending all the money, we‘re doing all the work.  The Iraqis have to do this themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. The president has two more years in office under the Constitution.  He‘s got half his second term left.  He says he will keep us there in force until he leaves office. 

Why can‘t the Democrats approach the president and say, Mr. President, you‘ve only got two more years, you can‘t keep troops in there any longer than you‘re president, why don‘t we negotiate some sort of timetable for getting our troops out between now and the next two years? Why can‘t you agree on something like that? 

MURTHA:  I think you have come to the answer to the whole thing.  You have a table, which puts the responsibility on the Iraqis, they will start to take the responsibility.  And that is the best staged way to withdraw. 

MATTHEWS:  With you two guys, with you on the Democratic side, and you are a spokesman for the whole point of view against the president.  Why don‘t you have a meeting at Camp David and work out a bipartisan plan for the next two years and unite the country? 

MURTHA:  I tell you, once we are in charge, Chris, and I think it‘s to his benefit that we should do it.  He‘s got a unique opportunity here to change a failed presidency to a presidency that has some relevancy.  And I think once the Democrats are in charge, operating from a power base, we can work that out. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Congressman Jack Murtha, Pennsylvania.  Thank you for joining us.

Coming up, former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie, an old pal of this show.  Will a big fight among Republicans over terrorism and how to treat prisoners hurt the Republicans in the midterm?  That‘s what we‘re talking about tonight.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

It is a showdown now from the president and the top Senate Republicans like John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham over the rights of suspected terrorists.  Republicans are running on security in their fight to keep control of Congress. 

Could a big fight within their own party hurt them?  Ed Gillespie‘s the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and author of a new book, a great new book on politics, “Winning Right”.  Republican actually is called, “Winning Right: Campaign Politics and Conservative Policy”.

You conservative, right? 

ED GILLESPIE, FMR. RNC CHAIRMAN:  I am. 

MATTHEWS:  And you a Republican?

GILLESPIE:  I am.

MATTHEWS:  Why is the president fighting with these military guys, like Colin Powell, John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham, all with tremendous military backgrounds, which he doesn‘t have.  Why is he taking on the guys with all the street cred? 

GILLESPIE:  Well, this is the legislative process, as you know so well from having worked up on the Hill.  And the fact is, no one expects any member of the House or the Senate on either side of the aisle to just simply take what the president proposes and implement it. 

They are going to have their own input, they have their own strong feelings about this, particularly people like Senator McCain and Chairman Warner and Lindsay Graham, who have served, have strong feelings about this. 

And they have every right and, indeed, responsibility to participate in the process and change the language in a way that they think is better for the country.  They are in agreement.  We need to get something done here in terms of this policy, and they will get to the language that works. 

MATTHEWS:  I love the law about unintended consequences.  Could it be because the president has been so sharp in saying—in presenting this war we are fighting, not just against terrorism, but particularly in Iraq—that we are the good guys and they are the bad ones.  He has used terms like the “evil ones”. 

We have created a situation like guys like McCain, and Warner and Colin Powell can say, if we are the good guys, as the president‘s proposed that we are, fair enough, then let‘s act like good guys.  We don‘t torture. 

GILLESPIE:  We don‘t torture.

MATTHEWS:  Has he set himself up for critique of our interrogation policies? 

GILLESPIE:  We don‘t torture, and the administration is clear.  We do not sanction torture. 

MATTHEWS:  Well how to we get this information out of people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? 

GILLESPIE:  Well I think you interrogate them.  There is a difference. 

MATTHEWS:  With a rubber hose, or bright lights at night, or no food, no candy bars, you don‘t get a cigarette, I mean, what do you mean by rough treatment?

The president gives us a wink, you know, he‘s on television, he gives us a little wink every once in a while.  I think these are rough techniques.  He let‘s you know it‘s tough. 

GILLESPIE:  Well I assume it is not a pleasant experience, but I don‘t know.  I have no military clearance.  I do know what the standards and practices are.  I do know that it is the policy of the United States government that we do not sanction or condone torture. 

MATTHEWS:  Is water boarding torture?  Make a guy think he‘s about to drown? 

GILLESPIE:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t know enough about, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  All right. 

Well, let‘s talk politics.  Why does the president want to talk about these kind of things?  Why is this filling the air waves?  Is it crowding out more war coverage?  Is that what he is up to?  Would he rather argue about this stuff, about terrorism?  Because that keeps that in the front lines? 

(CROSSTALK)

GILLESPIE:  Let‘s talk about what you have control of and what you don‘t in politics.  Because sometimes you pick your battles and sometimes your battles pick you. 

This is, as you know, this legislative process is the result of a Supreme Court decision, and the Supreme Court decision that came out required legislative language to respond to, and that‘s the process that we find ourselves in now.

MATTHEWS:  Is a lot of politics topic selection?  It seems to me if you are a Democrat, you would love to talk about the future of Social Security because it‘s an old Democratic New Deal program, the Republicans have had differences with.  If you want to talk about terrorism, then you are playing on the enemy turf if you‘re a Democrat.  Because people trust this president and his party more than they do the Democrats.  Isn‘t it about topic selection? 

GILLESPIE:  Well, I say in my book “Winning Right” that when you are in a campaign, an election, how you are talking about something is often less important than what you are talking about. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree completely.  But give us an example in this campaign.  Give us away some of the playbook right now from your book.  If you are a Republican now, what topics do you want on the table between now and November? 

GILLESPIE:  Well, again, I think that in our case we want to be talking about the strong economy and the fact we have seen median incomes go up .

MATTHEWS:  Gas prices going down?

GILLESPIE:  . gas prices are going down, jobs are being created, 5.7 million new jobs.  Those at the lower end of the income spectrum, they were slow to feel the benefit of this economic growth and it is starting to there now, which is a real benefit.  I think you do want to talk about national security issues.  I think they matter.  I think how you win the war on terror is an important discussion. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, what are the areas you would rather avoid?  The problem areas for Republicans, they‘re not strong line?   

(CROSSTALK)

GILLESPIE:  .that when Republicans are talking about the issues .

MATTHEWS:  Health care.

GILLESPIE:  . health care, Medicare, Social Security. 

MATTHEWS:  Poor people? 

GILLESPIE:  No, I think, look, I am a strong advocate, and you see in my book, about talking about poor people.  I think our approaches on those all of those issues, by the way, health care, social security and poverty, are better. 

MATTHEWS:  What is the best bit of advice in this book for a person who wants to run for office? 

GILLESPIE:  Run as who you are and on things you believe in and the best thing in politics is to win, having run as who you are on things you believe in. 

MATTHEWS:  Suppose your district doesn‘t agree with you.  Suppose you‘re a conservative like Steve Laffey up there in Rhode Island, trying to run to the right like he is Orrin Hatch or somebody, or Trent Lott in Rhode Island?  How do you do it? 

GILLESPIE:  Well, you just run as who you are and things you believe in.  You may not always win that way, by the way. 

MATTHEWS:  It never wins.

GILLESPIE:  The worst thing is, the worst possible combination is to run as somebody you‘re not really on things you don‘t really believe in and lose.  It will haunt you for the rest of your life.

MATTHEWS:  Suppose the reason you‘re running is just sheer personal ambition?  How do you explain that to yourself and to the public? 

GILLESPIE:  If you are running just on sheer personal ambition?  I think you have a hard time getting elected, because the voters see it.  They‘re not interested in somebody who‘s running for pure personal ambition.

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you.  Stay up after midnight.  Have a couple drinks, think through why you are running and once you have got that figured out, you are OK? 

GILLESPIE:  Yes, I think that is right.  Because if you don‘t know who you are in the process, you‘ll get defined by somebody else. 

MATTHEWS:  Is Hillary authentic? 

GILLESPIE:  I think that, I tell my Republican friends that we would make a mistake to underestimate Hillary Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  Is she authentic?

GILLESPIE:  I don‘t know her well enough to know if she‘s authentic. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  “Winning Right,” covering up for Hillary‘s strategy.  Anyway, campaign politics and conservative politics.  I know this guy so well.  I know he knows his politics.  You ought to read his book.  Thank you Ed Gillespie.  The book is called “Winning Right,” double entendre.

Up next we will go live to Cuba, where 118 nations are meeting in a forum for some of the worst critics of the United States, a real platform for U.S. bashing down there.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  In Cuba, Raul Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, is hosting a summit of 118 nations, many of which are hostile to the United States.  For more on late breaking developments down there in Cuba, we turn to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell, who is in Havana tonight.  Andrea, what is the tone of that summit, any surprises? 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the tone is, not surprisingly, very anti-U.S.  That is not the theme of this conference, but this is the non-aligned movement.  It‘s a relic of the Cold War, formed in 1961 with Fidel Castro back then.  Last hosted here, Chris, in 1979.  And even though India and Pakistan and other American allies and friends are here and Kofi Annan, this is overwhelmingly dominated by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Ahmadinejad of Iran. 

They have criticized what they call the imperial policies of the U.S.  So certainly the theme is against U.S. policy in Iraq and Lebanon and throughout the Middle East and Latin America. 

MATTHEWS:  What about this proposal that came out of the White House today, that they hold an election down there in Cuba, simply to choose between democracy and what they have now? 

MITCHELL:  How do you say non-starter?  No one here is taking that very seriously, frankly.  The White House has been trying to assert itself a little bit because this gathering is getting a lot of attention, perhaps more attention because Fidel Castro hasn‘t been able to attend.  There was a lot of suspense over that, but he showed up in video with Hugo Chavez, then with Kofi Annan, in his hospital room, wearing his, you know, pajamas and bath robe. 

He has not been seen here and is not expected to come here.  It was said today by both Perez Roque, the foreign minister who is increasingly in charge, and Raul Castro, that he is following his doctor‘s orders.  So, because of that attention, the U.S. is trying to sound off a bit.  We heard from the Commerce Secretary, a Cuban-American, Carlos Gutierrez and he said that there should be this referendum.  But the Cuban people do not expect that to happen. 

I‘ve talked to dissidents, to Castro supporters and opponents and frankly, no one takes very seriously this U.S. effort to spend $80 million, financing Cuban dissidents, because that would completely destroy their credibility if they were seen by the regime and by the rest of the Cubans as taking money from the U.S. government.  U.S. policies are not very popular here, even with people who don‘t like Fidel Castro.   

MATTHEWS:  What is it like down there?  I know we‘ve watched it.  Most of our looks at Havana in the last 20 or 30 years has been on the Godfather movies, when we get to peak at it, but that is not the real thing.  What is it like?  Does it smell like it is developing?  Is there the smell of construction or the smell of decay down there?  What is it like? 

MITCHELL:  Well, I have been here for a number of years.  And there is a vitality, I have to tell you.  It feels, partly because of retooling of their energy supplies.  There have been no power shortages, not really what they used to experience in the Summer.  They have been getting a lot of help from Venezuela, from Chavez and cheaper oil subsidies from them.  They still have commerce. 

They work around the U.S. embargo.  In the last two years the Bush administration, with a bow to Castro opponents in Florida clearly, and in New Jersey and other parts of the U.S., have stepped up the embargo and really tightened it.  So no more school visits, cultural visits, art festivals, film festivals, museum shows, that kind of thing.  Even religious church visits have been cut back.  That‘s really been tightened up. 

So unless you‘re a journalist, privileged like I am and my colleagues here, Brian Williams will be anchoring Nightly News here tonight, we don‘t get to see very much here.  But these are a very inventive and pro-American people.  The warmest people you could ever hope to meet.  It‘s wonderful down here and you see both old cars and new.  They‘re very good at adapting those 56, 57 Chevys and making them work.  They can do anything.  These people have been living in adversity for many, many decades.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I have to tell you, the ‘57 Chevy was always my favorite, still is. 

MITCHELL:  Mine too.

MATTHEWS:  I‘d like to see one in working order down there.  Anyway, thank you very much.  Andrea Mitchell, in Havana. 

Up next, the HARDBALLers will dig into all the latest news in the fight for power in 2006.  MSNBC‘s Ron Reagan, “The Hill” newspaper‘s A.B.  Stoddard, the “Chicago Sun-Times” Lynn Sweet, and the “Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson.  They‘re all going to come here.  We are going to have a festival of argument. 

And this weekend on NBC‘s “Meet the Press,” Tim moderates a debate between Virginia Senator George Allen, and his challenger Jim Webb.  That is going to be a good one.  That is Sunday on “Meet the Press.”  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Bush in a legislative showdown Senator John McCain and senior Republican leaders over CIA interrogation tactics.  Today, threatened to shutdown the program of interrogating prisoners altogether if Congress doesn‘t agree to his policy for fighting terror. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I have spent a lot of time on this issue, as you can imagine.  And I have talked to professionals, people I count on for advice.  These are people who are going to represent those on the front line of protecting this country.  They are not going forward with the program. 

They‘re not—the professionals will not step up unless there is clarity in the law.  So Congress has got a decision to make.  Do you want the program to go forward or not?  I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  But can the president win by saying CIA interrogations will be stopped, abolished unless Congress gets on board with his program, and will this GOP revolt by Senator John McCain, Senator John Warner—look at them all—Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina hurt Republicans campaigning on national security in the midterm? 

Here to dig into today‘s most interesting stories are MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan who is out in Seattle, A.B. Stoddard in front of me here.  She is associate editor of “The Hill” newspaper.  Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the “Chicago-Sun Times,” and the “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson. 

Eugene, I wonder your thoughts on this.  Do you believe the president when he says A, we are getting top quality intelligence out of these prisoners that is useful in stopping future terrorist attacks?  And secondly, do you believe that the CIA is saying if we don‘t get it this way we are not going along with any more interrogations?  Do you believe both of those points the president has been making?

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST” COLUMNIST:  I am not sure about the first point.  The conventional wisdom is that you don‘t really get great information out of torture because, obviously, people tell you what they think you want to hear so you will stop waterboarding them or whatever. 

But the second point—you know, what I think is really fascinating, what I heard from the press conference today was the president saying, indicating basically that the people of the U.S. CIA and our military don‘t want to torture anybody, and that they are not going to do it just because he tells them to do it.  Congress has to tell them to do it.  I thought it was encouraging that our military and our CIA are so unenthusiastic about torturing people. 

MATTHEWS:  Lynn Sweet, do you see it that way?

LYNN SWEET, “CHICAGO SUN-TIMES”:  Well, I see that as long as Colin Powell and John McCain are saying one thing and the president is saying the another, there is not a unified Republican message.  And I think—I‘m just guessing that of the independent minded and swing voters—Chris, if you are looking at this in the context of November, my guess is that John McCain and Colin Powell will be at least at parity if not more at the present in who to go along with ere.   

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a question, A.B.  It seems like the president has been very Manichaean—that‘s a big word for saying we are the good guys, they are the bad guys.  Has he helped build a foundation for people like Colin Powell to say if we are the good guys, let‘s not torture? 

A.B. STODDARD, “THE HILL”:  I think that there is no end to the frustration and anger probably inside the White House at John McCain and Colin Powell right now.  But really, if you look at this in political terms, I think this is good for John McCain and good for President Bush. 

I don‘t think it is going get to the point where there are senators are defending waterboarding on the floor of the Senate.  I think the White House is going to find a way out of that, but for this week, on September 15th

MATTHEWS:  You mean when they go to the floor next week?

STODDARD:  I think they‘ll find a way to finesse it, but for this week, four days after the September 11th anniversary, it continues the theme of the week of terror.  It is another opportunity to talk about the enemy and actually, that moves the numbers and that‘s good for him right now. 

MATTHEWS:  So in other words, he is on the right topic even if he‘s on the wrong side? 

STODDARD:  That‘s right, because he doesn‘t have to do it 10 days from now.  It was this week.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Ron Reagan.  Do you believe that‘s true?  As long as the president is talking about terrorism and not talking about Iraq, he is winning? 

RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, he might be on the wrong topic, but as you pointed out, he is on wrong side.  And Eugene made a very important point.  You know, the president talks about the professionals, and he‘s talked to the professionals about this.  They do want clarity about this. 

And I suspect, as Eugene said, that what they really want is to adhere to the Geneva Conventions.  They don‘t want to torture.  And so if he says he is listening to the professionals, the chief prosecutors of the four Armed Services branches are vehemently opposed to President Bush‘s proposal here.  They want fair trials and they don‘t want to use torture or evidence gained under coercive techniques.

MATTHEWS:  But what is it—let me get to this point, Ron.  I mean, I wasn‘t in the military.  I was in the Peace Corps.  We didn‘t have any torture or we didn‘t have any interrogation requirements, I must say.  But it seems like the Geneva Conventions are very strong.  They say you cannot hurt the dignity of the prisoner.  Well, obviously water boarding, keeping the guy up all night with the lights on, ask him ridiculous questions, humiliate him, isn‘t that part of our rough treatment? 

REAGAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  And isn‘t it too strong to say that you have to treat these guys like gentleman officers, like they were brought in during the Revolution, these were the British generals we‘re treating here, when you are treating terrorists? 

REAGAN:  Well I don‘t think the point is, and I don‘t think anybody is going to bring anybody before an international court and complain that, gee, we didn‘t get our allotment of soccer balls, or something like that.  We know what degrading, humiliating treatment is. 

I think everybody knows it, like pornography, you know it when you see it.  The only question an interrogator need ask himself is, if this was being done to me, would I consider this an outrage against my personal dignity.  And if the answer is yes, then you shouldn‘t be doing it to somebody else. 

MATTHEWS:  Hold on, in other words, you can‘t leave a guy in prison cell for a couple of weeks naked with the lights on? 

REAGAN:  Why would you do that?  What good does that do?

MATTHEWS:  To try to get him to say, I want the lights off and I want my clothes back and I will tell you some stuff. 

REAGAN:  But it doesn‘t work.  It doesn‘t work.  John McCain has been through that sort of treatment and he has said... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Would it work with you?  Ron, would it work with you? 

REAGAN:  No.  It would just make me mad. 

MATTHEWS:  Hey, let me go to another male here to ask this indecent question.  Eugene, if you were in this indignity, this dissing as we say in the streets here, if you humiliate a guy for months, like we may have been able to do to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, or as the president calls it, like he‘s been on it, KSM, like he‘s his buddy or some guy on the street, you know, KSM, he‘s like writing graffiti on the wall, I mean, can you get away with that and say... 

Let me get back to the point.  Do the military mind doing that, does the CIA mind doing that kind of rough treatment to prisoners? 

ROBINSON:  I am not sure about that specific thing.  I mean, if you water boarded me, Chris, I would turn you in, OK? 

But it‘s not as if—the president tries to make it seem as if no one has ever done anything under the Geneva Convention for the last 60 years, no one has ever looked at this, no one‘s ever thought about this, there is no settled kind of law or understanding about where the line is. 

In fact, there is.  This is not a kind of de novo situation that we are encountering here.  So you know, the president wants to go further than accepted practices under the Geneva Convention Common Article III. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, in other words, the last election was between the wind surfer and the water boarder? 

How come that‘s rough?  He is defending rough interrogation.  This president is pretty open about it.  The way you look in his face, the way he says stuff, look I believe in rough treatment of these guys.  These are the bad guys.  He is not pretending he is a somewhat lily livered guy here. 

SWEET:  And look at how interesting—how he tried to jump over the means to the end, because he jumped right over to the end to say—he enumerated, we got this information, we got that information, we learned about this and that. 

I think by trying to show the results of this kind of interrogation, forgetting the methods, he was trying to be persuasive.  Now I don‘t think this is going to sell the Republicans in Congress, who he will need, because most of the Democrats are going to be united on this point. 

But by stressing what the interrogation yields is not a bad tactic in trying to sell a policy that might be unsellable. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We will come right back and talk to another torture test, that‘s the polling out there about this administration.  We‘ll be right back with Ron Reagan, A.B. Stoddard, Lynn Sweet, Eugene Robinson. 

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. We are back with MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan who is out in Seattle, “The Hill‘s” A.B. Stoddard, Lynn Sweet of the “Chicago Sun-Times,” she‘s the bureau chief here in Washington, and the “Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson. 

This is the number.  I want to start with you, Ron.  This is the number that grabbed me.  According to the latest NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll, 51 percent of Americans oppose the president‘s new policy for bringing suspected foreign terrorists into this country for trial, or to Guantanamo, including denying them access to classified evidence against them. 

I thought that the public was in a rough and ready, beat the hell out of them, get these guys... Fifty-one percent to 41 percent said they don‘t like the whole smell of this plan by the president to bring these guys to trial.  What do you make of that number? 

REAGAN:  Well, no, they don‘t.  I am surprised that the numbers are actually that close.  You know, Americans like to fight hard, but they like to fight fair.  And I think that most Americans are intrinsically, inherently opposed to the idea of doing anything to anybody which so violates our principles here in the United States. 

The idea, as one of the senators, it might have been Lindsey Graham‘s, said, of trying somebody, finding them guilty, possibly executing them based on evidence that that defendant never gets to see, just really cuts against the grain of America, of American life. 

MATTHEWS:  And it sure prevents that defendant from ever saying anything to the world about how he was treated, right? 

REAGAN:  Exactly.  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  They are gone. 

A.B., why does the public care about this as much as this poll suggests?  Not everybody, 51, 41 say they don‘t like the smell of this thing? 

STODDARD:  I think when they‘re polled they care.  In the focus group, in the moment.  I just think that, is it going to get them to the polls? 

No.  It is going to be Iraq, it‘s going to be the larger picture of the war on terror, whether or not that voter thinks Iraq is separate from the war on terror.  That is going to drive it.  I don‘t think they are going to be thinking about the tribunals and the interrogation when they go to the polls. 

MATTHEWS:  So Bush wins on this, as long as he‘s talking about terrorism, no matter what he‘s talking about ?

STODDARD:  I think in most cases. 

Except if I could point this out.  Here is why if people do care about this issue, why they might connect on it, Chris.  People have friends and neighbors, and know people who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

They don‘t want to have the possibility that if their loved ones are taking as prisoners of war, that the Geneva Convention are going to be tossed out the window. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you honestly believe that some guy over in the mountains in Afghanistan is checking in to see how people are treating people here, so that they‘ll treat our guys appropriately? 

STODDARD:  I can‘t speak to that.  But if you are talking about what might click with voters, I think that is the part that will stick with them, and that could partly explain what you‘re seeing in the polls.  

MATTHEWS:  Eugene, I want you to take a look at this number.  I will repeat it for you, the latest NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll has President Bush‘s overall job approval at 42 percent, up two points since July.  Is this a bounce or a trend toward November? 

ROBINSON:  I think it is a bit of a bounce for him.  I mean, I agree with A.B. that when he talks about terrorism and doesn‘t mention Iraq, which at other times he says is the single front in the war on terrorism, but never mind that, if he can talk about terrorism without talking about Iraq, I think it helps him a bit. 

But I think it‘s like a connection or a joint in some sort of mechanism that works it‘s way loose gradually, and you have to tighten it down again and it works its way loose again.  You have to tighten it again.  I think that number is kind of like that.  He talks about terrorism for a while, his number gets a little bit better.  But then people start thinking well, but there really is terrorism over here, and the there‘s this mess in Iraq and they don‘t really seem to be related. 

STODDARD:  I Agree.  I think as we move away from the anniversary this week of 9/11, the conflating of Iraq and the global war on terror becomes more difficult again.  It is just working out for him very well this week and we know why.  But the bad news will continue in Iraq, and that is going to be harder for him in the weeks to come. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you sense the news media is covering this war the way it was in the beginning?  We are losing just as man guys now, mostly guys, 60-some a month, two a day getting killed in Iraq and yet you don‘t.  Maybe I‘m not watching enough news, but I don‘t see it on the networks? 

STODDARD:  I think all we talk about is Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  But do we show the war for the regular people, not political people?

STODDARD:  Well there‘s a list in the paper every day of the casualties.  I think so.  

(CROSSTALK)

STODDARD:  And the Iraq policy of this administration is topic number one. 

SWEET:  I think that, again, it depends.  I think the stories are there.  If people want to find out about what‘s going on in Iraq, Chris, they‘ve got plenty of ways to find out about i. 

MATTHEWS:  But are you putting it on the front page? 

SWEET:  I read the paper mostly on the Internet nowadays, so I‘m not sure, but it‘s prominent. 

MATTHEWS:  Gene, is the “Washington Post” putting it on the front page, the horror in Iraq? 

ROBINSON:  Sure, we‘re putting Iraq on the front page more days than not.  But Chris, remember, it is not easy to cover this war now.  It is not easy to get pictures of this war, kind of, in real time, as it was months ago because it is just so dangerous.  Which correspondent was it who said just the other day, 98 percent of Iraq is off limits to the Western press.  You just can‘t do it. 

REAGAN:  I can tell you Chris, I do a radio show out here, Kyler (ph) Radio in Seattle, and the topic of Iraq is a good one for talk radio.  And even when you bring up other topics that are only tangentially connected, you will have people calling in and wanting to talk about Iraq and disagreeing vehemently about it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that is what I hear from our reporters coming in from the, that the people, regular people, not news junkies necessarily, people who are just asked questions by reporters out in the field in America bring up Iraq.  We‘ll be right back with Ron Reagan, A.B. Stoddard, Lynn Sweet and Eugene Robinson.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I don‘t believe the Democrats are going to take over because our record on the economy is strong.  I believe if the Democrats had the capacity to, they would raise taxes on the working people.  That‘s what I believe. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That was President Bush with an ace in the hole of the Republican Party, taxes, the economy is getting better.  If you look at the stock market, gas prices are coming down.  He‘s saying that‘s going to be the winning ticket for the Republicans. 

Let me go to Eugene on that one.  Did you notice now, the Democrats, not to defend them, but the Democrats always say they are going to raise taxes for people over 200 K.  He says they are going to raise taxes on the working folks.  Is that going to scare up some Republican votes? 

ROBINSON:  You know, he must be talking to the folks that really don‘t have to work very hard at all.  But, you know, most people, I believe, don‘t think the economy is that great.  And gas prices will help them if they continue to go down, but the economy, in general, I think there is a lot of nervousness about it, and I don‘t think that helps the Republicans. 

STODDARD:  I think it‘s so interesting to see that terror, we are easily scared.  Any talk of terror we respond to immediately, but all the happy talk all year long on the economy has barely budged the voters.  Consumer confidence is down, housing markets in 28 states are cooling, people are not feeling great about the economy and no matter how much the White House jumps up and down they can‘t excite the voters. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you, there‘s another way to win if you‘re a Republican, fear the Democrats are going to come in and raise taxes.  It‘s not an unfounded fear. 

STODDARD:  I wonder if people are listening.  I hear them saying it. 

I am going to be interested to see if that really works. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s one of the better predictions out there, by the way, but they‘ll never get to raise taxes because Bush will veto it.  That‘s one thing. 

SWEET:  Right and at this point the stock market is doing well.  That message only resonates with people that have a portfolio big enough for that to mean something.  And that‘s not everybody.  So when you use that as one of the templates, it‘s not there.  I think gas prices is a much better measure where you could maybe move voters over discontent, and that‘s something that could float up and down right until election day. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron, I want to bring you in here.  Ron, it seems to me the president, a couple of his last press conferences, has been letting people know he has been reading the Rove playbook and his own Republican playbook.  He said, remember he was kidding the other time, he said now if I was really going to talk politics now, which I‘m not, I‘d say go out there and warn them about the Democrats raising taxes. 

Then he does it again today.  I think the Republicans playbook is the following, T and T, terrorism and fear of it, and taxes and fear of it.  Tell me if I‘m wrong.  Those are the ways Republicans get elected to the House. 

REAGAN:  No, I think you‘re right.  The terrorism is probably a little more effective for them.  I agree with Eugene and some of the other guests here, that the American people, you can look at the stock market and you can cite certain statistics or whatever, but the American people, I think, feel in their pocket books, and I‘m talking about the middle class of America, the majority of Americans, and they understand, even if they do not get the details, that their pay check isn‘t going as far as it used to, that it‘s not keeping up with inflation, and so they don‘t feel, as Eugene said, that the economy is really doing that much better. 

MATTHEWS:  A.B.?  You cover the Hill, you work for the Hill newspaper.  Isn‘t the reason the Republicans have been in charge for ten years is that they promised to voters effectively that they won‘t raise taxes and the Democrats will.

STODDARD:  What we are talking about in this election is that is their crowning achievement, but what we‘re talking about in this election is their own base want the party cleansed and wants them thrown out into the wilderness.  They have grown government.  They have had ethics trouble. 

MATTHEWS:  So the true blue Republicans want to house clean?

STODDARD:  No, their base wants it.  No, no, what we are talking about in this election is not their record of accomplishment.  It‘s what they have done on their watch and they are in trouble. 

SWEET:  The Republicans themselves are not speaking in one voice.  If you talk to Tom Reynolds, the chairman of the House committee, he says everything is local, local, local.  So all the national stuff does not work, and then look it, just this week one of the things that the Republicans said they were going to do, clean their own House in the wake of lobbying scandals, you know, it really came up this year, it‘s not going to happen. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Lynn Sweet, thank you very much.  Eugene Robinson, we‘ll get back to you next time.  Ron Reagan, thank you.  A.B. Stoddard, play HARDBALL with us again on Monday. 

MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell will have the report of hour series, and actually her series, on the HARDBALL Senate six pack.  Those are the top half dozen races in the country. 

Also we‘re going to talk about the Virginia race between Senator George Allen and Jim Webb.  They‘re on “MEET THE PRESS” this weekend.  We‘re going to see what‘s going on.  Right now it‘s time for Tucker.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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